Three Reasons to Treat Yo-self to a Cheesemaking Class

About a year and a half ago, we hired a new baby cheesemonger named Janna at the shop I worked at in West Seattle. One of her previous cheese qualifications was that she had taken a cheesemaking workshop from another local grocery store, PCC Community Markets.

Listening to Janna talk about the class, it seemed fun and easy. This was right around the same time that I was dabbling at home cheesemaking, and her success with Paneer and Mozzarella added fuel to my fever for kitchen dairy wizardry.

Since I met Janna, I have—in my own home—made Ricotta successfully about a dozen times and failed miserably at making Mozzarella three times. There is now a slight sense of trauma related to homemade Mozzarella for me.

But then I signed myself and one of my ex-cheesemonger besties, Chelsea, up for that same cheesemaking workshop that Janna had taken prior to her stint working and learning behind the counter. We took our class this past Monday, at the Columbia City PCC, and it was a treat.

The class, or workshop, as the official name states, was taught by Jackie Freeman, who is a former cheesemaker.

Freeman, who seems to have taught the class for a while, went to culinary school and has worked throughout the dairy industry—as she put it, she knows the whole chain “from the twinkle in the buck’s eye to the lambchop on the plate.” Her main gig these days is as a recipe developer and food stylist; essentially, she’s livin’ the dream.

I cannot say enough that the workshop was pretty rad—from the setup and the instructor to the hands-on parts and the educational content.

We were situated in a bright classroom with a bunch of steel tables and chairs on one end and a full kitchen on the other—complete with three cameras broadcasting a birds-eye view of the prep table so that the instructor could demonstrate technique to students sitting at their tables. There was tea and water, in case we got thirsty, and everyone had a packet containing basic information about cheese and cheesemaking, as well as recipes for the cheeses we would make in class.

Once everyone was checked in and seated, Jackie told us about her career and why she was qualified to teach us how to make cheese; she told us we were going to make and eat a lot of cheese, and that we would learn necessary information as we went; and she demonstrated for us how to make buttermilk cheese. This all happened very fast, and before we knew it we were standing up in three groups of four, clustered around pots of milk on our own burners.

But let me back up for a second. If, like me, you were wondering what buttermilk cheese is, there’s a good reason for that. I hadn’t seen the stuff before, but it is essentially a fresh cheese that is dry and crumbly, much like Feta (but not pickled).

Buttermilk cheese is also excruciatingly easy to make. Literally, Jackie heated some low-fat buttermilk on the stove until the curds and whey separated, poured it all into a cheesecloth-lined colander to drain off the whey, and that was cheese. She told us she was using low-fat buttermilk to get a drier, more crumbly cheese, even though it would produce a lower yield, but that we could also use whole-fat buttermilk for a softer, silkier cheese—and a lot more of it.

Even though we all had recipes in our handouts, Jackie told us we would not be following them. Instead, she walked us through the steps for each cheese, followed our progress, and ensured that nobody failed.

It was most interesting to me that the groups also all used different pots, and one group had a different heat source. This was, of course, for educational purposes. On our first round, making Paneer, one group had a medium-sized pressure-cooker pot and a portable burner; the second group had a medium-sized pressure-cooker pot and a gas burner, and our group had a large, tall pot and a gas burner.

The group with the portable burner got their cheese curds well before the rest of us, and they had the most curds and the best separation between curds and whey. The second group had finer cheese curds, and decent separation between their curds and whey. And our group had super fine curds and not very good whey separation—which made it pretty difficult to ladle all the curds out of the whey and into their draining cloth.

Our resulting cheese was teeny-tiny, but it still ended up being a cheese. This all showed that there are so many factors in cheesemaking, especially when you do it at home, that will play a role in your cheese’s success (or lack thereof).

This lesson, as well as the lesson that your milk shouldn’t just be cold straight out of the fridge—that you should let it sit out and come to room temperature first—made me realize that perhaps my past mozzarella failures could be rectified.

While our Paneer was draining, we made Ricotta. And while our Ricotta drained, we made Mozzarella curds. While those curds were coagulating, Jackie had us take a break while we watched her inspect our finished Paneer cheeses.

She chopped up our cheeses into cubes and separated them, half plain and half tossed in a tikka masala sauce. Then she went over our Ricottas, splitting the yield again—half plain, and half dressed with honey and pecans. She also went back to her buttermilk cheese, tossing it with diced shallots and spices. We were, after all, going to taste the fruits of our labors.

Then it was time to return to our mozzarella pots, in which the coagulated curds were ready to be cut and stretched. Old mozzarella-stretching pros that we were from our days at Metropolitan Market, Chelsea and I were delighted to learn a new method for stretching mozz: we reheated the whey after the curds were ladled into their draining basket, then took sections of the curds, placed them on cheese ladles, dipped them into the whey to heat them, stretched them, dipped, heated and stretched again, and then made balls.

We made Ciliegine (cherry-sized mozzarella balls)—some of them eaten hot, the rest tossed in aged balsamic vinegar with cherry tomatoes and basil.

And then we all grabbed platefuls of the cheeses, sat down to enjoy them, and talked about rennet and how to make aged cheeses at home.

Apart from how fun it was to make cheese in a group setting, to be successful at the hands-on part, and to eat like 10 pounds of cheese at 8:30 p.m., there were three things that were most important to me to take away from the two-and-a-half-hour workshop.

  1. Muscle Memory: as Jackie said, we had just built up knowledge of how to make the cheeses, and we needed to use that skill so we didn’t lose it. She said the magic window was about two weeks. So, Chels and I now have plans to make cheese (we’re thinking homemade Burrata, of course) within the next two weeks.
  2. Confidence: particularly for myself, traumatized by the expensive and saddening mozzarella curd failures of my home-cheesemaking experiences, it was a definite confidence booster to successfully make cheese—and without following a recipe to the T, no less. In general, the class made it seem much simpler and less opaque to make fresh cheeses.
  3. TroubleShooting: Working with different sizes and types of pots, different heat sources, different tools, and different types and temperatures of milk—as well as different types of acid, from lemon juice to citric acid crystals—helped prepare us for future escapades with home cheesemaking and a basic understanding of why things may not be going according to plan—and how to ensure that they eventually do. For example, a cast-iron pot will take an eternity to heat the milk, and old rennet or acid will lose effectiveness. So you can use a different pot, plan for a longer heating period, or add more acid. We gained a better understanding of the variables that affect cheesemaking success.

The workshop was a lot of fun. If you live in the Seattle area, I encourage you to sign up for the next round of cheesemaking workshops you can get into, whether those be at PCC or elsewhere. And if you live far away from our great city in the Pacific Northwest, you should definitely jump on the next cheesemaking workshop you find in your path—whether that be in your area or somewhere you go on vacation.

I mean, fun aside, how many people do you know who can just whip up a pot of Paneer for dinner? Or, making lasagna? Here’s my homemade Ricotta. Bam.

Treat yo’self to some cheesemaking: have fun, earn bragging rights.

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